What I Learned About Human Rights, Heart Disease, and the FARC While Making a Film About Palm Oil

October 3, 2016 Updated: October 3, 2016

I set out to make a documentary about palm oil, knowing only that forests were being cleared in Indonesia, orangutans were being killed, and smog was spreading across Southeast Asia.

One year on, I’ve been behind the headlines and discovered a more complex and, arguably, more worrying story. I found that the environmental impact of palm oil stretches beyond Asia and the worst is potentially still to come.

With the Spotlight on Asia, Destruction Is Unchecked in Africa

I visited Cameroon, “the new frontier” for palm oil, according to environmentalists. Palm oil has actually been produced in Cameroon for a century, but plantations were relatively small and mainly served the domestic appetite.

Palm oil is part of national dishes in West Africa, rather than a hidden ingredient in packaged foods, like it is in the rest of the world. This global appetite means foreign companies are rushing to set up concessions in Cameroon for export, which could have devastating consequences on biodiversity.

This is because the global campaigns to regulate palm oil and prevent deforestation focus largely on Southeast Asia. Eric Ini, a forest campaigner from Greenpeace Africa, told me that companies know the spotlight is off Africa.

In addition, companies are aware that Cameroon’s government has a weak stance on environmental issues.

Companies can be fined a maximum of around $8,500 in any one year for breaking environment regulations in Cameroon. For multinational companies, that’s nothing.

I met a government official for the environment who told me that companies can be fined a maximum of around $8,500 in any one year for breaking environment regulations. For multinational companies, that’s nothing.

Environmentalists in Cameroon say continued foreign investment could lead to the extinction of some animals, such as the drill—an animal that grows forests by spreading seeds. It only inhabits the forests of west and central Africa, the same area being primed for palm plantations.

A file photo of a drill, a type of monkey in Cameroon threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)
A file photo of a drill, a type of monkey in Cameroon threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)

Glenn Motumba, who works to protect the drill, a type of monkey in Cameroon threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)
Glenn Motumba, who works to protect the drill, a type of monkey in Cameroon threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)

My next stop was Guatemala, a country that has risen into the top ten palm oil-exporting countries in the world. 

Mayan Communities’ Long Struggle

Guatemalan palm oil companies are capitalizing on the rise in global demand for palm oil and constantly searching for more land for plantations. Much of the suitable land is inhabited by indigenous Mayan communities.

Land rights are not as strong as they should be in Guatemala and, where people fight to keep their land, they are often forcibly removed. This includes through intimidation and violence. A protester who objected to the contamination of a fishing river by chemicals from plantations was even allegedly murdered.

In meeting these Mayan communities they told me that the lawlessness they experience is underpinned by a history of racism against them. They view their battle with the palm oil companies not as an isolated fight, but one in a long list of struggles to survive since Spanish colonization in the 1500s.

Michael Dorgan meeting with a Mayan community in Guatemala while making his film, "Appetite for Destruction." (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)
Michael Dorgan meeting with a Mayan community in Guatemala while making his film, “Appetite for Destruction.” (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)

This includes when coffee companies stole their land in the 1850s and when paramilitaries attempted a genocide against them in the 1980s as part of a 36-year civil war.

Journalists in Guatemala told me that the same powerful elite have ruled Guatemala for nearly 500 years. They control industry, politics, and the media. As such, Mayan communities continue to suffer discrimination without much prospect of change.

I was learning that the impact of palm oil production was remarkably different, depending on the country I visited. This was confirmed when I then visited Colombia.

Palm Oil Provides Hope

Palm oil is providing hope and prosperity in areas previously decimated by drug trafficking and the fight between FARC and paramilitaries.

Palm oil is providing hope and prosperity in areas previously decimated by drug trafficking.

I met Hector, a farmer who provides palm fruit for Oleoflores, a company near Cartagena. Hector’s regular income means his 15 children don’t emigrate to Venezuela or go to the mountains with a rifle to fight. Instead, he pays for their education and they have the chance of a better life.

Three Palm Oil Muffins a Day

While visiting these tropical countries, I was actually eating more palm oil than ever before. Three palm oil muffins a day, to be exact.

I was mimicking one half of an experiment done by Swedish scientists. Their study compared the impact of eating palm oil muffins with eating sunflower oil muffins. For six weeks I ate palm oil muffins, before visiting the scientists at the University of Uppsala.

They found that I had put on 60 percent body fat! I went from 4.6 percent to 7.4 percent body fat in just six weeks.

However, as their controlled study found, participants eating sunflower oil also put on fat and both groups gained weight at the same rate. The dangerous findings were that, proportionally, the palm oil group gained more of their weight as fat. And, the fat they gained was around their liver and vital organs.

If I was to continue overeating palm oil, it could lead to cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease.

One of the scientists, David Iggman, told me that if I was to continue overeating palm oil, it could lead to cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease.

I think very few people know about the health impact, or the impact palm production has in countries across the Equator. They need to know that palm oil is not just the story of orangutans.

Michael Dorgan is the presenter of Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries, which is available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01LFOF78E

The poster for Michael Dorgan's documentary, "Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries." (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)
The poster for Michael Dorgan’s documentary, “Appetite for Destruction: The Palm Oil Diaries.” (Courtesy of Michael Dorgan)

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

RECOMMENDED